The strength of a mother

For Mother's Day, we honour motherhood in its many forms with these nine extraordinary tales of strength, perseverance, loss and (most importantly) love.

Photo: Roberto Caruso, Painted Canvas and Set: CaitlinDoherty.ca, Paint Colour: Springtime Peach 2014-50 and Dusk Pink 2013-40 by Benjamin Moore

Being a mom doesn’t come with a playbook. No matter how many (or how few) preparations you make, you can still be thrown a curve ball come delivery day. For these nine moms, motherhood may not have been exactly how they pictured it, but their extraordinary tales of strength, perseverance, loss and (most importantly) love, teach us that every journey is different—and that’s okay.

A mom in a floral blouse and skirt holds up her baby while smiling

Photo: Roberto Caruso

Christa Couture, 39
Sona, 4 months
The first thing people notice when they meet me is my leg. I lost it to bone cancer when I was 13. I’ve had four pregnancies in total. The first, I chose to terminate in my early 20s because I was in an awful relationship and I didn’t want to be pregnant. The second time I was with my now ex. The pregnancy was normal, but while I was in labour baby Emmett was distressed and swallowed a lot of meconium. The day after he was born, he died. Losing Emmett was heartbreaking but it bonded my ex and I, and we got married. In 2009, our son Ford was born. Diagnosed in utero with a very rare heart defect called hypoplastic left heart syndrome, Ford underwent three open-heart surgeries, a transplant and numerous other surgeries before he died at 14 months. While Emmett’s death had brought us together, Ford’s was more than we could bear. We tried counselling but the grief was overpowering. In 2014, we filed for divorce. I often thought about having another child—it always came up in new relationships. Then, last year, I received an unexpected royalty cheque (I’m a musician) and realized I could have a baby. I went to a sperm bank and chose a man who had a really nice voice. He seemed kind and said he was doing this because he had a family member who struggled with fertility. Being pregnant again was terrifying—I knew I was gambling with another loss—but I wanted a baby so badly I was willing to take the risk. When Sona was born, I had a lot of people stay with me and help out. I would have panic attacks and constantly worry that she wasn’t breathing. Now that I’ve seen her grow and develop, those fears have begun to wane. I’ve started to just enjoy being her mom.

A mom sits on a box surrounded by her four children

Photo: Roberto Caruso, Paint Colour: Springtime Peach 2014-50 by Benjamin Moore

Meghan Mckeown, 34
Caelum, 8, Reegan, 9, Aidan, 12, and Grace, 14
My partner, Ian, and I have a 10-year age difference, so when we met, I had no biological kids, while he had four. I wasn’t fazed—interestingly, my mom was single with five kids when she met my stepdad—but my first meeting with the kids did meet with some resistance. Aidan, the second oldest, worried that a new relationship could mean more siblings and less attention for him. Since Ian shares custody with his ex, we only get the kids half the time. I do my best to show the kids I’m not trying to replace their mom by trying to remember what it’s like to be their age. I don’t push, I just let them know I’m here if they need me—but I’m always reminded that they already have a mom. We’ll be baking and they’ll say things like, “Mom does it this way,” which stings, but I know it’s not meant to be hurtful. We have a chalkboard with emergency numbers in the house and it took me two years before I worked up the courage to contact Ian’s ex. She was so grateful I’d reached out. Now we message each other about the kids all the time—more than she and Ian do. One of the best feelings is when the kids ask me to sign their agendas or forms for school. It makes me feel like they truly value me as a mother figure. Sometimes they’ll ask me to volunteer. They also make me cards and call me on Mother’s Day, yelling, “Happy Mother’s Day, Meghan!” into the phone. I still would like to have a biological child one day—and Ian’s on board with that—but being part of his family has made this less of a priority.

A mom smiles while holding her baby close

Photo: Roberto Caruso

Sheila Wijayasinghe, 39
Layla, 6 months
I’m a family physician so I talk with women about pregnancy regularly, but issues around fertility felt like a black hole. Then around five years ago, I found myself in that same black hole. My husband, Corey, and I just celebrated our 11th anniversary but, like many women, I deferred having a baby to focus on my career and our relationship. Turns out I have a low egg reserve. After five rounds of intrauterine insemination (IUI), two cycles of in vitro fertilization (IVF), acupuncture, naturopathy, meditation and two miscarried embryos, I got pregnant with Layla. I was shocked by the challenges I faced going through fertility treatments. One time, I was given the wrong dose of medication. Another time, we were sent an email saying we needed to pay fees for our next IVF cycle before we had received the phone call telling us that we weren’t pregnant. Going through this made me feel like I had done a disservice to my patients who had gone through fertility treatment before me, and it broke my heart. With my knowledge now, I can explain what a cycle of IVF or IUI looks like so my patients can prepare. I can talk more candidly about the kind of support they will need, costs, and how to create a support network of friends and family. When I know that patients are about to embark upon a treatment cycle, I set a reminder to check in with them during those critical times when they’re waiting for results so they know they’re not alone.

A mom sits on some boxes with her daughter

Photo: Roberto Caruso, Paint Colour: Springtime Peach 2014-50 by Benjamin Moore

Natalie DaSilva, 39
Rosie, 3
As soon as my husband and I got married, we knew we were ready to start a family. I miscarried my first pregnancy at seven weeks, but the following spring, I became pregnant again with Rosie. It was a textbook pregnancy until 23 weeks, when I began having intense abdominal cramps and discovered there was a cyst on my ovary. Four weeks later, I developed pains in my legs, but an ultrasound showed no signs of blood clots. At around 30 weeks, I was on a flight home from our babymoon in Mexico and my vision suddenly went dark. Mother's Day gifts on a pink background 97 Mother's Day gifts you'll actually wantThe same thing happened the following Monday at work. Then a few days later, it happened again while I was in the shower, but my arm also went numb and my speech slurred. An MRI revealed that I’d had a stroke. I also learned that the cyst on my ovary had grown and I had blood clots up and down my legs. The doctors decided I should have the baby at 36 weeks. Rosie was born via Caesarean with 18 people in the room. At the same time, they removed the malignant tumour and my ovary, and I waited five hours before I could hold Rosie. Once I did, I forgot about everything else. Rosie was only eight days old when I found out I had ovarian cancer. I have a lot of cancer in my family—I lost my mom when I was 23, then my grandmother and my grandfather—so cancer felt like a death sentence to me. I was terrified at the thought of Rosie growing up without a mother. A hysterectomy, six months of chemo and 26 rounds of radiation followed. Going to appointments and being a patient meant I missed out on a lot in those first months—late nights, that initial bonding—things normal parents probably take for granted. But having Rosie meant I had to get better. If not for me, then for her.

A mom stadns alone in a leather jacket looking into the distance

Photo: Darren Hull

Lesley Buxton, 52
India, who would be 20 this year
In October of 2013, my daughter, India, died at age 16 from a rare neurodegenerative disease called spinal muscular atrophy with progressive myoclonic epilepsy (SMA-PME). She was having 15 to 20 seizures every half hour. A doctor friend recently told me that in medical school, she was taught that grief takes seven weeks before things start to get better. Seven weeks after my daughter died, I was still sleeping all day. Society expects people to get better instantly after a loss, but how can you put a timeline on someone’s grief? I wrote a book about it. And while I was writing the book, I was OK. But when I finished it, things got hard. I spent days in bed not knowing the time—and not caring. I’d go to a party, and the first thing people would ask is, “Do you have kids?” It’s an awful feeling to tell someone your child died. Often they feel so terrible for asking that I end up consoling them. I have one friend who’s really awesome because she’ll always ask things like, “What do you think India would do?” She validates me as a mother. I was a mom for 16 years and I loved it. I know how strong you have to be to have your kid seize in your arms and talk her through it. But I also know how it feels to watch endless hours of Buffy and play Just Dance Wii with a 16-year-old. I recently celebrated Mother’s Day with friends in the U.K. I hate having to explain to people that I was a mother—because as far as I’m concerned, I am a mother.

A mom sits on a box with her two daughter

Photo: Roberto Caruso, Paint Colour: Springtime Peach 2014-50 by Benjamin Moore

Obioma Ibeh, 27
Olanna, 3, and Matanna, 2 months
I moved from Nigeria to Toronto while I was pregnant with my second daughter, Matanna, because my situation in Nigeria had become life-threatening. While I miss the local food and spending time with my friends and family, I know the girls have more opportunities here: There’s a steady and consistent school system, and they are allowed to be who they want to be. In Nigeria, females are expected to be submissive—women are not given equal opportunities, and family is everything. That means the girls would do what they’ve been asked to do no matter what. They wouldn’t be allowed to speak up and say, “No, I don’t want to do that.” If they tried, it would create friction and fighting between family members. Here in Canada, I think the girls will grow up happy, because they’re allowed to pursue what they love. But raising the girls in Toronto hasn’t been without its challenges. We just experienced our first winter, and it kept us indoors for months—I only go out to get groceries. My daughter Olanna always wants to play and meet other kids, but we’re not used to the cold yet. In Nigeria, Olanna could just go outside and hang out with other kids. I sometimes worry that because my daughters will grow up in Canada, they won’t have the same core values I grew up with. In Africa, you respect your elders—if someone is older than you, you don’t call them by their name but address them with a title, like “auntie” or “uncle.” I don’t see that here, and I’m still not used to it. If I hadn’t had kids, I might have stayed in Nigeria. But as a mother, I would never risk the lives and well-being of my children. When I made the decision to relocate to Canada, it was for my girls. Knowing they have the security they need makes living in a country that’s foreign to me worth it.

Two women stand close to little boy in a wheelchair that they both care for

Photo: Roberto Caruso

Lynda Collins, 43, and Natasha Bakht, 45
Elaan, 8
Natasha: I initially planned to have Elaan on my own and be a single mom. But then Lynda, who’d been a friend for years, offered to be my birth coach and fell in love with him. I always thought Lynda would just be a godparent, but when I realized Elaan had health issues, Lynda’s role in our lives grew. Elaan was diagnosed with periventricular leukomalacia, which means he spends most of his time in a wheelchair. He can walk with a supportive wheel walker but has limited use of his arms, eats using a gastronomy tube and he’s visually impaired. Lynda was spending most of the day with us, so when the unit above mine went up for sale, she bought it. By the time Elaan was two, I considered Lynda a co-parent—even if we weren’t calling it that yet. Lynda (left): People often assume that Natasha and I are a couple. We’re not, but having to answer the question so often, we realized that we are a family. It became important to me to make our relationship formal. One night, we were at Natasha’s for dinner and I asked how she’d feel about me adopting him. I thought she’d want to take a few days to think about it, but she immediately said yes. Since Natasha and I are friends and not partners, I couldn’t legally adopt Elaan. So we hired a lawyer to present our case. In November 2016, we were at parent-teacher interviews at Elaan’s school when our lawyer called to say I was going to be a momma. I was walking down the hall and I just started crying tears of joy.

A pregnant woman standing with her two other daughters

Photo: Nicole Duplantis

Julia Silvestri Wong, 38
Lucia, 4, and Fiamma, 2
My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010. Over the next four years, she had various treatments, from a lumpectomy to chemo, but in 2014, we found out her cancer was terminal. My eldest daughter, Lucia, had just turned six months old. Learning I was going to lose my mom right after becoming a mom myself was extremely difficult. I’d always envisioned that we’d do things together with my kids; small things, like learning to cook family recipes or taking them trick-or-treating (my mom was very theatrical). Sometimes she’d come over and help me fold the laundry, which was nice, but also hard because I knew she wasn’t going to be with us much longer. We spent as much time with my mom as we could. I’d have her read a book to Lucia, and I’d record it on the iPad so Lucia could have that memory. My mom and I had a strained relationship when I was growing up, so it was really nice to see how amazing she was with Lucia. I think she would have been a better grandma than she had been a mom. Becoming a mom myself, I appreciate her so much more. I understand why she was short-tempered, because I can be like that, too. My mom died when Lucia was 11 months old. We keep mom’s memory alive by talking about her a lot, but Fiamma and my new baby didn’t get to meet her. I show them photos but I don’t know if it means much. Sometimes, when I look in the mirror, I see my mom’s face and that makes me miss her a lot.

A mom in a dress holds her daughter as she stands on a box

Photo: Roberto Caruso, Paint Colour: Springtime Peach 2014-50 by Benjamin Moore

Hilary Jenset, 35
Willa, 2
When I was pregnant with Willa, I had gestational diabetes, chorioangioma (a tumour of the placenta) and an excess of amniotic fluid. These put me at higher risk for preterm birth and at 33 weeks, I went into labour. Willa was huge for a preemie—she weighed five pounds, 12 ounces. But for the five weeks we were in the NICU, she wouldn’t eat anything. We tried breastfeeding, a feeding tube and, later, a gastronomy tube. She wasn’t gaining weight and she also wasn’t sleeping. At one year old, we transitioned her to a blended diet of green beans, zucchini and chicken, which helped. Willa is now two years old and weighs only 22 pounds. She has what’s called global developmental delays: She was late to crawl, she can’t stand on her own and she doesn’t walk. When we look at old photos of Willa, I see a sickly child and a pit forms in my stomach. I struggle to see how far she’s come. My husband, Harold, and I were alone a lot in that first year—we couldn’t take Willa to the drop-in centres since she was susceptible to infection. The first time we went to a kids’ party, it was difficult to see the kids jumping and clapping along to music—especially for Harold. Willa just sat there. It was an intense reminder of her condition, and in that moment, we became really fearful about her future, the uncertainty of it. Now, I’m starting to hang out with other moms and kids, which helps. I still get frustrated when moms complain that their kids are fat or have too much energy because I wish I had those problems, but I’m starting to accept things are going to be different for Willa—and that’s OK.

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